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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Libertine
Haymarket Theatre   Autumn 2016

The Restoration period with fun-loving King Charles II on the throne was a period that saw the gentrification of London with a massive shot of liberal and, if truth be said, dissolute energy into society. With the return of the aristocracy and the reopening of the playhouses after Cromwell's puritan republic, anything went – so long as you (or your wife) had the cash. 

And, as uber-rakes go, the Earl of Rochester was a particularly graphic specimen, as documented here in Stephen Jeffreys' ambitious biodrama, first seen in 1994 and more recently with John Malkovich.

Starring Dominic Cooper as the earl, we catch his nights out on the town with playwright George Etherege (Mark Hadfield), the Earl of Dorset and Middlesex (Richard Teverson) and "young spark" Billy Downs (Will Merrick). 

When not boozing or whoring, Rochester and company keep up a steady stream of inspired invective against their high society colleagues such as the King (Jasper Britton) and poet-playwright Dryden (who sadly does not make an appearance) – Rochester adding to the mix with his own pornographic satirical writing along with above-the-groin musings on the meaning of life.

And there's a compelling wave of meta-theatre as Rochester catches a play, falls for its struggling actress Elizabeth Barry (Ophelia Lovibond), then writes an ill-fated pastiche for the King, dildo chorus line, priapism and all. In between all of this, Rochester frequently breaks off to address the audience, challenging us to judge him, daring us to join him.

On the face of it The Libertine is a well-paced romp with a sprinkling of thoughtful observations. Yet careful direction from Terry Johnson, looming versatile set and a large cast of 16 can only partly disguise the fact that what we get is a series of loosely constructed vignettes linked by the unconvincing through-story of Rochester's battle to be true to himself.

Cooper gives an undeniably solid performance but has little to sink his teeth into as Rochester. He warns us not to love him, anticipating the line-up of unlovable acts that he carries out simply because he can – ignoring his wife Elizabeth (Alice Bailey Johnson), spending her money, biting the royal hand that feeds him, abandoning a fatally stabbed companion. 

But without context, Jeffreys' play struggles to be more than a tick box of set pieces and it's rarely clear what pillars – or windmills – Rochester is actually pitting himself against.

There's also little sense of the ensemble, a problem that lies not in want for trying but in the fact that while the leads do a great job, the supporting players are a mixed bag and really could do better. 

Ultimately though, this is a slick production that confidently knows its audience, which bodes well for the success of this limited run at the Haymarket.

Nick Awde

Buy the play at AMAZON.CO.UK
Review - The Libertine  - Haymarket Theatre 2016  


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